Jobriath, aka Bruce Wayne Campbell, was one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest tragedies. Initially touted as the “American David Bowie” via a massive marketing campaign spearheaded by Elektra Records and infamous impresario Jerry Brandt (who’d worked with Carly Simon, Chubby Checker, and the Rolling Stones), the former Hair actor-turned-glam rocker instead faced a swift and vicious backlash. The public reaction was no doubt at least partly because Jobriath was openly gay. (He made bold statements like “I’m the true fairy of rock ’n’ roll” and “Asking me if I’m homosexual is like asking James Brown if he’s black” in his sensationalistic interviews and blasted other effeminate rockers as “pretenders.”) This was basically unheard-of in 1974. But Brandt’s obnoxious next-big-thing promotional blitz (which included plastering the singer’s naked torso on hundreds of New York city buses and on a Times Square billboard) before Jobriath had even released as much as a single, and the hype over Jobriath’s reported $500,000 deal (the most lucrative recording contract ever, at that point), definitely contributed to the underrated artist’s downfall.
Less than a decade after the spectacular commercial failure of his self-titled debut album, Jobriath, who had reinvented himself as New York cabaret pianist Cole Berlin and had disavowed his Elektra catalog entirely, became one of music’s first AIDS casualties, dying alone and in obscurity at the notorious Chelsea Hotel 35 years ago on Aug. 4, 1983, one week after his original 10-year contract with Brandt expired. He was 36 years old.
Until recently, Jobriath was known mainly for being one of the biggest commercial failures and cautionary tales in music business history, but over the years he has become a cult hero and cause célèbre among other musicians — gay and straight — who owe him a debt. Morrissey (who’d once attempted to hire Jobriath as his opening act in the ’90s, before learning that Jobriath had died) kickstarted this campaign in 2004, when he oversaw the first reissue of Jobriath’s out-of-print music via the compilation Lonely Planet Boy. A decade after that, the rockumentary Jobriath A.D. featured famous fans like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond, Ann Magnuson, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, hit songwriter Justin Tranter, Henry Rollins, and, interestingly, even Def Leppard frontman and Jobriath superfan Joe Elliott — wearing his own custom Jobriath T-shirt! — singing Jobriath’s praises. (Def Leppard actually covered Jobriath’s song “Heartbeat” for their 2006 covers album, Yeah!.)
“I discovered Jobriath in a very odd way,” Elliott says in an extended Jobriath A.D. outtake obtained exclusively by Yahoo Entertainment. “There was a secondhand record store in Sheffield, [England], called Violet May’s, and it was the place to go for the rarities. … I came across this album cover … I just saw the sleeve. I was probably 14, and of course, as a 14-year-old kid, you don’t have the prejudices that you will be forced to pick up later on down the road. I didn’t care. I was like, ‘OK, yeah, all right, he looks like Ziggy Stardust! I’m probably gonna like this.’”
Elliott stole the album — Jobriath’s even less successful sophomore effort, Creatures of the Street — that day, only to discover when he got home that the sleeve was empty. But he was still fascinated by this “space guy.” (“There was a thing in the ’70s where you actually did buy albums because the sleeves were cool. Everybody did: Elton John, Zeppelin, it didn’t matter who it was,” he laughs.) Three weeks later, Elliott came across the actual album (“So I stole that too!”), and he wasn’t disappointed by what he finally heard.
“It was exactly what I wanted it to be. It was art-rock. It was … very musical, very different to your standard Sweet, or your Three Dog Nights, or your Grand Funk Railroads, or whatever…,” Elliott recalls. “It had an airiness to it, and there was plenty of piano, and … I just loved his voice. To me, to sum up Jobriath, it was Ziggy Stardust sung by Mick Jagger.”
In a separate interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Elliott says he didn’t find out that Jobriath was gay until 15 years later, but shrugs, “Who cares? I just loved his songwriting. I didn’t and still don’t care who he slept with.”
And Elliott says that even if he had known about Jobriath’s sexuality back then, as a 14-year-old glam rock fan, he still wouldn’t have cared about it. “For me, the attitude toward the sexuality of these artists [in the early ’70s] wasn’t an issue. The word ‘gay’ meant you were happy back then…,” he says in the Jobriath A.D. clip. “They used to use the word ‘pouf’: ‘He’s a pouf.’ I’ll be honest, I probably said it myself when I was a kid. There was always rumors [about male glam artists], and there was always, ‘He looks a bit weird.’ I thought it was cool as a kid, as an only child that didn’t have peer pressure from an older brother going, ‘You shouldn’t be listening to that rubbish — you need to listen to some manly stuff like Black Sabbath!’”
Recalling the androgyny of the glam era in general, led by “the most beautiful men you’d ever seen,” like Jobriath, David Bowie, and T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, Elliott elaborates, “I saw Marc Bolan wearing women’s shoes, silk trousers, feather boas, glitter stuck on his cheeks, pouting away, lipstick on — and thought nothing of it. I thought, ‘Well, he’s onstage. He’s elevating himself above this audience.’ That’s what you do! … There was something that was OK about a guy dressing a bit feminine. … I wanted to be them; I didn’t want to shag them. I just wanted to be in their space.
“It was talked about in the schoolyards. … I was getting my head kicked in by Slade fans for liking the ‘pouf’ that was Marc Bolan or David Bowie,” Elliott continues. “So [the homophobia] was there. But it never bothered me. In fact, if anything, it made me gravitate to [gender-bending artists] even more.”
Elliott’s longtime Jobriath obsession may seem surprising, but a direct line can be drawn from Jobriath to Def Leppard’s long-haired, men-in-makeup metal peers who dominated the mainstream in the 1980s, like Poison and Mötley Crüe. So Elliott’s fandom makes perfect sense. “The ’80s needed the ’70s to set it all up,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The ’70s was full of bands playing with makeup: Bolan, Bowie, even the Sweet. Color TV had only just kicked in — in the U.K., at least — so all these bright colors put you ahead of the competition. I believe it’s a combination of different factors, but the most obvious is it just needed time [for rock ’n’ roll androgyny] to sink in.”
And for those who are still surprised by Elliott’s tireless Jobriath evangelizing, he sums up to Jobriath A.D. director Kieran Turner, “There’s been many a time people have said to me, ‘You’re a Jobriath fan? But you’re not gay!’ So? What, do I have to throw my Elton John records away? If I had to throw every gay artist out of my collection, I’d have no records left.”
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
- The sugar-sweet, bittersweet story of Def Leppard’s ‘Hysteria’
- David Bowie forecasts circumstances of his death in ’70s interview
- How Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott keeps that famous voice going